During the Medieval Period a strange thing happened. Well many strange things happened; but today we only have time for one. During this time artistic portrayals of Jesus the Christ changed from that of a Middle Eastern, Arabic man to that of a white European. Much like the bread and wine, with a hocus pocus and a wave of the hand the elements of Jesus changed. In the interest of brevity and my faulting memory we will not go into all the the how’s and why’s; but if you want an extended discussion of this miraculous event you might pick up Jaroslav Pelikan’s magnificent Jesus Through the Centuries. Perhaps the Western Church needed a Savior that looked like them. Perhaps on the heels of the Crusades and in harsh fire light of the Inquisition a Middle Eastern man staring down from the stained glass above the altar would have been in poor form. But as these things go, they went.
And now a millenium has passed and our ahistorical West might be excused for forgetting this tedious fact: Jesus was a Jew. As Jonathan Merritt pointed out so ably in the Atlantic, if Jesus was to come to the U.S. today; then, he would probably be in danger of racial profiling, I mean, good old-fashioned police work. The same TSA agents and cops that worried he might be the next shoe bombing terrorist might have pictures of Scandinavian Jesus proudly displayed in their homes. It wouldn’t be the first time that religious leaders on the look out for the coming of the Messiah got confused and jailed the real deal.
When we get confused about the ethnicity of the Messiah, we might be tempted to shrug our shoulders with a people will be people hanging on our lips. Yet we must not take this talk lightly. Remembering who the Messiah was and is, stands at the heart of our faith.
1) Remembering who Jesus was should embarrass us out of our provincial us versus them sentimentalism. We in the modern world have turned our world into warring factions. There are the good people look us; and the bad people like them. For the same reason that an Arabic looking Jesus needed to be removed from the church walls; we need to put him back up again. We need to be reminded that Jews are not our enemy. We need to be reminded that Arabs are not our enemy. We need to be reminded that God, himself, chose to come and walk amongst them and not us. God choose them first. We the Gentiles are the late arrivals to the Messianic banquet. We are the ones grafted into the vine. They are the original vinelings. We bear a debt of gratitude to the many men and women of the early church from modern day Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Northern Africa who at one time composed the church. God had a plan for them, and as Romans 12 tells us, He still does today. There will come a time when the men and women of these lands will return to their first love and be reunited with their Messiah. They already are in a huge wave of revival. Remembering who Jesus was; reminds us of what He is doing and where He is going, It reminds us pray a prayer of forgiveness for our vanity, for our provinciality, for our attempts to turn ourselves into the new Chosen people, and for all the times we have played the role of the older brother trying to remind our Father of our brother’s sins.
2) Remembering who Jesus was should embarrass us for our love of cheap Gnosticism. Despite what many Conservatives might preach from their bully pulpits the chief heresy of our day is not Universalism, is not Liberalism, or even Communism; it is gnostic dualism. The Gnostics divided the world into flesh and spirit. The envisioned a fleshly world here on earth with a spiritual world in the heavens. Never the two would meet until death killed the body and released the spirit into the heavens.
The early gnostics who so aggravated Paul and the early fathers made two mistakes by going to one or the other extreme. Either they said the spirit is so important that one should never go in for any earthy activity. They fasted and were proud. They abstained from sex and other pursuit which gladdened the body and were proud. The body was to be beaten into submission so that the spirit might become dominant and glorified. Or they said that since the body was of no consequence what did it matter what one did. They eat and drank and were proud. They engaged in promiscuity of all kinds and were proud. They did whatever felt right and made them happy and were proud. One might see these two extremes in the modern world. Here we have many on the left that are proud of their indulgences; and on the right we have many who are proud of their spirituality, of their holiness, of their self-martyrdom.
When one of my favorite bands, the Arcade Fire, sings, “my body is a cage / that keeps me from the one I love.” They are giving into the Gnostic heresy of old. When pastors talk about the spirit and flesh being locked into a mortal struggle. When you get the two dogs metaphor, When you hear talk of the importance of mortifying the flesh. When people talk about their being a sacred sphere to life and a secular sphere. When we are warned to avoid worldly things and seek the spiritual things. When people proudly tell you that they have no use of eating, and drinking, art and entertainment. We are getting people trying to make good of the challenge of scripture; but we are also getting some of the old gnosticism creeping around and scratching at the door (if it has not already entered into the room).
In the do what makes you happy amoralism and in the no joy, not ever religiousness; we need to remember that God came down and took on human flesh. That in a world proud of its goodness and sacrifices; Jesus ate and drank. He partied with sinners and tax collectors. His disciples picked grain and the Sabbath and ate. To many he was a glutton who had turned from the Jewish faith of His birth. We must also remember that in a world that had a god for all things, especially having a good party. A world that gave us the term bacchanalian. A world fondly remembered by many a porn auteur and frat boy. Jesus was accused of being no fun. He was mocked by the Greeks and hellenized Jews as a man who refused to dance and enjoy the feast set before him.
When we make Jesus into some ahistorical everyman. When we say Jesus is white. Jesus is black. Jesus is this. Jesus is that. When we Jesus is everything other than what He was. When we say it does not matter who he was. We have allowed a seed of doubt and discord into our land. When we say that Jesus looks like us, acts like us, loves us alone; when we attack anyone who says that Jesus looks like them, acts like them, loves them; when we have a Savior that is all man and not God: we have given into a soft racism and sentimentality that will rot our faith from the outside. When we attempt to correct this error by saying it does not matter who Jesus was, when we say Jesus is all things to all people, when we say that all that is important are his spirituality, and his teachings, when we have Savior that is all God and not man: we have given into the perverse spirit of this world.
If it is important that in this season we keep the Christ in Christmas; it is doubly important that we keep the Je(w) in Jesus.